2021 NFL Playoff Hopefuls Who Should Be Concerned Heading into Week 3
We're two weeks into the 2021 NFL season, and overreactions can be found everywhere. Derek Carr might look like an MVP candidate and Zach Wilson like a draft bust right now, but narratives are going to shift dramatically over the next 16 weeks.
While it's important to take hyperbolic September statements with a grain of salt, there are truths to be uncovered. For example, several flaws have been unearthed that should have 2021 championship hopefuls like the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers quite alarmed. It's too early to hit the panic button, but there are very real issues that need to be addressed.
Here, we'll examine six potential playoff contenders who should be concerned heading into Week 3. We'll examine the problems that have been presented, how they could affect teams over time and some possible options for course correction.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
After remaking their defense in the offseason, the Browns became a trendy Super Bowl dark horse—picked by one Bleacher Report analyst to make the big game in our preseason predictions. However, it's clear after two weeks that the Cleveland defense remains a liability.
The Browns surrendered 397 yards and 33 points to the Chiefs in the season opener. That's not too surprising, given the prowess of Patrick Mahomes and Co. However, the Browns turned around and surrendered 302 yards and 21 points to a Houston Texans team that lost starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor at halftime.
More alarming is the fact that Cleveland might be sitting at 0-2 if Taylor hadn't exited the game. The Browns had no answer for the dual-threat signal-caller, who was 10-of-11 for 125 yards with 15 rushing yards and two touchdowns before departing with a hamstring injury.
Houston's switch to rookie Davis Mills and a pair of turnovers—a Mills interception and a muffed punt—may have saved Cleveland's early season.
The addition of Jadeveon Clowney hasn't made Myles Garrett an unstoppable force—he has just one sack and three quarterback pressures. Cleveland's revamped secondary looks as inconsistent as it did a year ago.
To make matters worse, the Browns will be without offensive leader Jarvis Landry for at least three games, as he was recently placed on injured reserve with an MCL sprain.
Cleveland's new defense was always going to require time to come together, but the Browns need to find ways to speed up the process. This may require defensive coordinator Joe Woods simplifying his schemes and/or looking to the free-agent and trade markets for veteran reinforcements.
At the same time, the Browns must figure out how to weather the absences of Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who has yet to return from last year's ACL tear. That could mean more early-season work for running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, which would potentially leave them worn later in the year.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers were favored to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in Bleacher Report's preseason predictions. Through two weeks, however, Green Bay has looked nothing like a title contender.
Yes, quarterback Aaron Rodgers got back on track with a four-touchdown performance against the Detroit Lions in Week 2, but the defense remains a significant issue. Green Bay got blown out by the New Orleans Saints in Week 1 and struggled defensively for three quarters against Detroit.
Against the Saints, the Packers allowed 322 yards, 22 first downs and 38 points. While the Packers did force two turnovers against Detroit, they still allowed 344 yards and 19 first downs. It took a blown 4th-and-1 opportunity by the Lions in the third quarter for the Packers to gain control of the game.
The biggest areas of concern are the pass rush and Green Bay's perimeter secondary play. With Za'Darius Smith on injured reserve, Green Bay has struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The defense has just one sack through two games after averaging 2.6 sacks per game in 2020.
Opposing passers have also found success attacking the boundaries, something pointed out by ESPN's Rob Demovsky.
"Jared Goff is now 9-of-9 for 105 yards and 2 TD passing outside the numbers tonight, per ESPN Stats & Info," he tweeted during the first half. "In Week 1 the Saints were 9-of-12 passing for 113 yards and 2 TD passing outside the numbers against the Packers."
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry will have to figure out how to take away easy completions on the perimeter and how to generate additional pressure if the Packers hope to beat elite teams in the NFC. Winston showed that he is still an inconsistent quarterback in Week 2, throwing for just 111 yards with two interceptions against the Carolina Panthers. Goff remains an above-average starter at absolute best.
If Green Bay continues to struggle against signal-callers like Winston and Goff, it has little hope of containing the likes of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray in the postseason.
The Indianapolis Colts are in serious trouble, and not just because of their 0-2 start to the season.
The Colts offense has been up and down with Carson Wentz at quarterback, which shouldn't come as a surprise. Wentz missed the preseason after undergoing foot surgery. He's been further hampered by an offensive line that lost longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement in the offseason and has been inconsistent at best.
Wentz has been under pressure on 30.1 percent of his dropbacks. While he holds a respectable passer rating of 95.0, he's committed two turnovers while throwing three touchdown passes. He has also struggled to get the ball to Indianapolis' wide receivers, who have combined for just 24 of the team's 47 receptions.
More importantly, though, Wentz is again banged up with sprains in both ankles, though he may not miss extended time.
"My history with Carson is that he's a pretty fast healer and he's tough," coach Frank Reich said, per ESPN's Mike Wells. "If there's any chance he can play with these ankle sprains, he'll play."
While Wentz may play in Week 3, it's hard to believe that he'll be at 100 percent. It's also difficult to envision him returning to Pro Bowl form at any point this season. The Colts may have a serviceable starting quarterback and a functional offense, but that's not nearly enough with a defense that ranks 18th overall and 23rd in points allowed.
If Indianapolis hopes to return to the postseason this year, it has to get Wentz healthy, get him comfortable in the offense and establish some chemistry with the team's wideouts. And if Wentz cannot find a wide receiver he truly trusts, the Colts might want to start making some calls.
Philip Rivers was far from perfect in his lone season with the Colts, but he kept the offense moving. Indy made its way to the playoffs last year while ranking 11th in passing yards and ninth in points. The Colts are currently 19th and 24th in those categories, respectively.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have appeared in the past two Super Bowls and the past three AFC title games. It doesn't require mental gymnastics to envision them in the championship round once again. However, Kansas City is not going to get that far if it cannot patch the sieve that is its run defense.
The Browns and the Baltimore Ravens both had their way with the Chiefs on the ground. It took a pair of turnovers and a botched punt for Kansas City to survive Cleveland at home. The Chiefs didn't survive the Ravens in Baltimore.
"Every play isn't going to be a pass," safety Tyrann Mathieu said, per ESPN's Adam Teicher. "Against these kinds of teams—the Ravens, the Titans, the Browns—you have to be ready to stop the run. You have to be committed."
And while the Chiefs rank last in both rushing yards allowed and yards per run surrendered, that's not their only defensive concern. Kansas City has been just plain bad on that side of the ball.
Cleveland amassed 457 yards of total offense in Week 1, while Baltimore amassed 481 yards in Week 2. Kansas City is on pace to surrender 553 points this season. The 1981 Baltimore Colts hold the current NFL record for points allowed in a season with 533—albeit in 16 games, not 17.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is going to have to make some front-seven adjustments—perhaps moving Chris Jones back to the interior—and the Chiefs have to heavily consider their free-agent and trade options. Otherwise, Kansas City is going to find itself in shootouts weekly.
Fans should feel good about the team's chances in shootouts with Patrick Mahomes under center. However, the Chiefs cannot guarantee they'll possess the ball last in every single contest. As the Ravens proved on Sunday night, when Kansas City doesn't have the final possession, it can lose.
The Pittsburgh Steelers outlasted the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 thanks to a dominant defensive performance. However, Pittsburgh's defense has issues, as stalwarts Devin Bush, Joe Haden and T.J. Watt are all nursing groin injuries.
A bigger issue, though, is the play of Pittsburgh's offensive line and a lackluster running game. The Steelers have four new starters along the line in Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, J.C. Hassenauer and Trai Turner. They have yet to mesh.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked four times and has been under pressure on 31.2 percent of his dropbacks. That's an issue for a 39-year-old quarterback who wore down at the end of the 2020 season, especially considering Roethlisberger is now dealing with a left pectoral injury.
Compounding the problem is the fact that rookie first-round pick Najee Harris has not opened up the ground game. The Alabama product has been a workhorse, playing 97 percent of the offensive snaps through two weeks, but he hasn't been the game-changer Steelers fans were hoping for.
Harris has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and has yet to break a run of 20 yards or more. As was the case last season, Pittsburgh ranks last in rushing.
The unfortunate reality is that Pittsburgh's offense under new coordinator Matt Canada looks a lot like it did last year—barely good enough. Wideout Diontae Johnson's knee injury isn't going to help matters.
The Steelers are going to have to find new ways to spark the running game—perhaps more receiver sweeps and reverses—and/or add to their backfield. They're also going to have to figure out a way to reduce the pressure on Roethlisberger. Otherwise, Pittsburgh will again be a team heavily reliant on its defense.
With defensive injuries mounting and teams like the Packers, Browns and Seattle Seahawks on the not-too-distant schedule, the Steelers had better sort out its offensive issues in a hurry.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers were within minutes of winning the Super Bowl less than two years ago. However, injuries derailed their 2020 campaign, as key players like Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel and Richard Sherman all missed significant time.
While the 49ers have started 2021 with a 2-0 record, injuries are already starting to mount again. San Francisco lost starting cornerback Jason Verrett and starting running back Raheem Mostert for the season to knee injuries in Week 1. Running backs Trey Sermon (concussion), Elijah Mitchell (shoulder) and JaMycal Hasty (ankle) were all injured in Week 2, along with defensive tackle Kevin Givens (ankle).
Running back Jeff Wilson Jr. was already on the physically-unable-to-perform list following knee surgery.
Losing Verrett hurts, as he was a quality starter who allowed an opposing passer rating of just 76.2 in 2020. While Kyle Shanahan has found creative ways to get production on the ground in the past, there's a very real chance San Francisco will have to become a pass-first team for the foreseeable future.
"There's a limit to everything and injury depletion in the backfield has scuttled the 49ers' run game before," The Athletic's David Lombardi wrote.
The NFL is a league often won by the healthiest team, and attrition will be an even bigger factor under the new 18-week format. Having this many key injuries after only two weeks has to concern a team that was so heavily hampered by injuries a year ago.
The Ravens, which have 15 players on injured reserve, are in a similar situation. However, the injury factor hangs over San Francisco like an albatross more than it does any other team.
If the 49ers hope to make their way back to the big game, they'll have to do everything they can to avoid more significant injuries while finding reinforcements for their backfield.
*Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.